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A History of Tartan

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Tartan is associated the world over with the kilt, the national dress of Scotland, and the history of both goes hand in hand. Tartan is a material that can be woven from many colours, and originally it was a sort of 'uniform', the distinguishing feature of the many clans in the Highlands and islands of Scotland. Although there are various forms of tartan or clan 'uniforms', so to speak, throughout the world, the origins of the clans of Scotland and their distinctive tartan dress can be traced as far back as the middle of the 5th Century to Ireland, where the Scots originated. And to this day, these origins are still wrapped in debate and controversy.

The Origins

Tartan did indeed originate in Ireland, and it was then introduced to the then unnamed country of Scotland by the Scots, who moved from Ireland to re-found their ancient kingdom, Dalriada. It was they who gave Scotland its name. The very first form of tartan is nothing like its modern day counterpart, being a type of shirt that ended just above the knee, known as léine in Irish Gaelic. It is generally accepted that it was made of linen, and although the earliest references to this garment describe it as light-coloured, it may have been of a darker yellow shade which led to the English describing it as a saffron shirt. In the 16th Century there are many descriptions of the léine and comments made by a French visitor to the country in 1556 are typical:

They wear no clothes except their dyed shirts and light woollen coverings of several colours.

This suggests the first attempts at making a distinctive pattern with the material of the coverings - the plaid. However, there is no evidence to suggest that after this time, the Scottish Gaels carried on the Irish practice of making the léine with these stripes.

In later times, coloured stripes were incorporated into the léine to indicate the rank of the wearer; the first attempts at what is now known as tartan. A High King wore seven stripes, one of these being purple - the colour of royalty. The Ollamh (chief man of learning) wore six on his (even then, learning and scholarship was held in very high regard.) However, the shirt gradually went out of use in favour of the plaid. In 1645, at the Battle of Kilsyth, Montrose instructed his men to put away their plaids and to tie the ends of their shirts between their legs. But the men who weren't Irish or didn't wear the shirt as a result of the ruin of the Irish linen trade, had no choice but to wear their plaids. And wool, which before had been a rare commodity in the Highlands, was now becoming abundant thanks to the growing number of sheep herds in the land. And so, the plaid grew from being little better than a rug to a long piece of material between 12 and 15 feet in length, which the Highlanders would pleat round their waists in folds, pull over their heads like a hood and use as a blanket at night. Although the léine was still in use, it was now used as a covering for the upper body while the plaid was used for the lower half.

Evolution and Wear

The earliest portraits of men wearing the plaid, held in place by a belt show it to hang as low as the léine, to just above the knee. However, when William Sacheverell came to recover stores from the sunken Armada ship in Tobermory Bay in 1688, he found that only a minimum of the plaid was being worn below the belt:

It is loose and flowing like the mantles our painters give their heroes. Their thighs are bare, with brawny muscles. Nature has drawn all her strokes bold and masterly; what is covered is only adapted to necessity; what should be concealed is hid with a large shot-pouch.

This 'shot-pouch' is actually a purse, the cache-sexe, which is better known as the French description - the sporran. The remainder of the material was brought over the shoulders and then fastened with a brooch. Upon seeing this very unique type of dress, many visitors commented on the decency of the shortness of the lower half of the garment, especially when the wearer had to bend over and especially on a windy day!

Growing Popularity

By 1730 the patterns had evolved from simple stripes and patterns into what today would be called tartan, from the French word tartaine. And even royalty were getting in on the act. By 1538, records showed that James IV had learnt Gaelic and his son, James V, adopted a variation of the highland dress, wearing a short Highland jacket made of velvet, tartan 'trews', and the léine. The phrase 'Heland tertane to be hoiss' refers to a kind of tight trousers, or hose, a pair of which survives to this day. However, although the dress of the average Scot seems to have been standardised by then, the sett (the pattern of the tartan) of each clan was not; subtle variations of the same clan tartan were still to be found.

Setts and Standardisation

Around the year 1618, evidence suggests that the setts became standardised. This became necessary as more often than not, a particular pattern would be identified as the tartan of the predominant clan of a local area, much to the annoyance and inconvenience of other clans in the locality. In 1703, Martin Martin commented on the skill of the weaver:

The Plad wore only by the men is made of fine wool, the thread as fine as can be made of that required in sorting the colours, so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy. For this reason the women are at great pains, first to give an exact pattern of the Plade upon a piece of wood, having the number of every thread of the stripe on it. Every isle differs from each other in their fancy of making Plaids, as to the stripes in breadth and colours. This humour is as different through the mainland of the Highlands in so far that they who have seen those places is able, at the first view of a man's Plaid, to guess the place of his residence.

Tartan Almost Never Was

Unfortunately, not one of these sett-sticks, as they were known, has survived to this day after the events of the 'Forty-Five', the the year of the Highland Clearances in 1745. After the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden, the English Army routed the Highlands, destroying the Highlanders' way of life. In particular, to keep the people oppressed, clan tartans and dress were banned, and so the cloth-making equipment, including sett-sticks, was destroyed. But even at their lowest ebb, the Highlanders still rebelled, albeit in a far muted way, by wearing trousers of their tartan, subtly woven. Sir Walter Scott believed that the enthusiasm for tartan, a sign of rebellion also in the Lowlands, came from the common hatred of the Union of Parliaments with England. Incidentally, his own works had played a powerful part in extending this fashion of Lowlanders wearing tartan, further helped by the state visit of George IV in 1822.

Although nobody remarked on the traditions of the various plaids and tartans, this may not be true in all cases. For example, the island of Islay's annual rent to the Crown consisted of 60 ells of black, white and green cloth. Incidentally, the island's population consisted of the clan Maclean, whose tartan, the Hunting Maclean, is of these colours. On the other hand, Sir Ludovic Grant of Grant in the early 1700s ordered his tenants to wear Highland dress made of red and green tartan, 'set broad-springed'. Again, these are the main colours of the Grant tartan, but even after Sir Ludovic Grant's orders almost a dozen family portraits at the time of his son show that not even his family adhered to his attempt at standardisation.

Modern-day Wear

In 1730, the modern-day kilt evolved - originally worn by an Englishman! Thomas Rawlinson, who conducted iron smelting at Glengarry wore Highland dress in the traditional manner, but found it inconvenient in that he could not remove the upper half of the plaid without having to totally disrobe the whole garment. So he set about dividing it into two halves, which then enabled him to tailor the lower part into what is now the kilt we all know and recognise. It was subsequently adopted by the Chief of Glengarry, Iain MacDonnell and was soon followed by others. The fact that it was an Englishman who invented the modern kilt has been a very bitter pill for most Scots to swallow, but there is compensation in the fact that he didn't invent it; he only made a very convenient improvement that maybe only a foreigner would pick up on.

Subsequently, it was called the féileadh beag (little plaid) to differentiate it from the traditional plaid, the féileadh bhreacain. It comes from the Gaelic word breacan (party-coloured cloth), and at that time its forbidden use was used for a rallying symbol in an outburst of indignation. When the ban was lifted, a wave of celebration and enthusiasm swept over the country, which gave an instant and resounding celebrity to the achievement of generations of Highland women who had woven the cloth over the years. These simple designs that had started on humble handlooms, which put a bit of warmth and colour into the lives of many in these cold and chilly lands, were subsequently adopted by the Lowland Scots, who were more apt to wear English fashions. The Lowlanders manufactured the cloth by machinery, which led to more widespread wear and the raised status of Scotland's most colourful emblems.

Since these days, tartan has extended beyond the simple, original reason of clan identity. Queen Victoria herself had a tartan, the Johore, commissioned, while native clans such as Currie and MacCrimmon who have every right to have their own tartan, were for a time overlooked. The same happened in the Lowlands; the Armstrongs and the Turnbulls are both native border clans but the latter having no tartan to call their own. Nowadays, everyone gets in on the act - football teams, even countries have commissioned their own tartan, but nobody can argue that all this merely helps to emphasise the importance and emotion that the people of Scotland attach to tartan and the sense of kinship also, which has been an integral part of Scottish culture ever since the first Scots of Dalriada came to these shores.

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